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Interview with Dr. Alexander Pelzer

Dr. Alexander Pelzer
Dr. Alexander Pelzer
Vice President, Head of Research & Development
BRAIN Biotech AG
BRAIN Biotech AG

Our technology is versatile and not market specific
BRAIN Biotech AG is a leading European biotechnology company specialising in the development of bio-based solutions and innovations for the textile industry and beyond, with a strong focus on R&D in protein engineering and bioinformatics for sustainable and high-performance materials. Speaking to Fibre2Fashion, Vice President, Head of Research & Development Dr. Alexander Pelzer discusses protein engineering.

What are the primary challenges in protein engineering for the development of high-performance protein-based fibres, and how are researchers addressing these challenges to enhance fibre properties such as strength, elasticity, and durability?

One of the challenges of protein engineering is translating the improvements into real-world applications. The actual application can sometimes be very complex with various chemical, biological, and physical factors coming together. Sophisticated application tests are needed to characterise the properties of optimised proteins. This information is incredibly valuable and is used by the protein engineering experts to make predictions for further optimisation. In collaboration with the experts at AMSilk, we were able to master this challenge, collect very good data and use it for protein engineering.

Can you elaborate on the specific challenges BRAIN Biotech faced in optimising natural structural proteins for textile applications, and how you overcame these obstacles?

The improvement of natural structural proteins for textile applications was challenging, as knowledge of the exact structure of the fibres was limited for the creation of a reliable protein structure. We relied on bioinformatics and artificial intelligence methods to predict the structure. Once we were able to predict a suitable three-dimensional structure, we were able to apply our workflows for rational, targeted protein engineering. For the best possible predictions when optimising proteins, we apply rational protein engineering with sequence-based and structure-based methods.

How does BRAIN Biotech’s approach to rational protein design and bioinformatics differentiate your R&D processes from others in the field, particularly in relation to developing high-performance protein-based fibres?

We always combine our broad expertise from different areas such as protein engineering and protein discovery. Our experience from the last 30 years of protein science has taught us how beneficial the combination can be. 
In addition to various pipelines for different applications, we have a very large and exclusive digital protein database. For each problem, we analyse individually as to which approach will lead to success. The advantage is that many approaches, such as discovery and engineering, are based on bioinformatics. This means that the two approaches can interact nicely in a sense that information from our digital protein database is used in protein engineering – and vice versa.
In addition, we always use a combination of computer science and the expertise of our protein engineering experts. In silico predictions are very good and are getting better and better. Nevertheless, the assessment of the predictions by an engineering expert, who benefits from experience and can additionally refer to scientific literature, for example, is essential for the success of the project.

The collaboration with AMSilk has been highlighted as a success. Could you discuss the synergies between BRAIN Biotech’s protein engineering expertise and AMSilk’s advanced materials knowledge that made this partnership particularly effective?

Both companies pursue the same strategy: to build sustainable industries and actively develop new, biological solutions. This partnership has been so successful because both companies are absolute experts in their respective fields: BRAIN Biotech for finding, optimising, and producing the proteins and AMSilk for material science, application testing and ultimately application of the performance fibres. The common ground of the collaboration is the work on a protein and has been a success due to the excellent interaction between AMSilk and BRAIN Biotech. This collaboration shows how powerful biotechnology can be, and how it can replace existing materials with sustainable performance materials.

Spider silk-based proteins are praised for their unique combination of strength and flexibility. How does BRAIN Biotech plan to further exploit these properties to revolutionise the performance materials market?

We work on behalf of our customers and in this case have customised a recombinant protein and developed it exclusively for AMSilk. In this strategic partnership, a variety of further properties of the performance fibres can be optimised through rational protein engineering.
However, our technology is versatile and not market specific. We discover, optimise, and develop proteins and enzymes on behalf of industrial customers from different fields. In addition, we are experts in the development of microbial production strains and fermentation processes to produce such proteins and enzymes on industrial scale.

The use of AI predictions in sequence and structure-based bioinformatics has been a significant aspect of your success. Can you provide more insight into how AI technologies are shaping the future of protein engineering at BRAIN Biotech?

Bioinformatics and computer science are developing rapidly. Bioinformatic methods have long been part of our protein discovery and engineering pipelines and are continuously being expanded through developments in artificial intelligence. New methods and developments will be evaluated and applied to our purposes as quickly as possible.
At BRAIN Biotech, we consider nature as the best model for discovering new proteins and enzymes. During evolution, nature has solved many complex chemical problems in a biological way. This is exactly what we are currently striving for in an industrial environment.
What is even more exciting is that most of the biodiversity is still undiscovered – and the potential for new enzymes and proteins is huge. This is why we digitise environmental samples and store the digital sequence information in our large sequence database MetXtra. This approach creates pioneering opportunities: We digitise nature’s solutions and are thereby able to apply bioinformatics and informatics to them. In this way, we benefit from both worlds.
With developments in the field of artificial intelligence, our predictions based on the collected digital data will become even better. Ideally, in the future we will use an AI algorithm suggesting which enzymes should be selected from our digital databases, how they should be specifically optimised, and in which expression system they should be produced in response to a specific text search query with defined enzyme parameters.

BRAIN Biotech has a broad focus that includes nutrition, health, and the environment. How do the innovations in textile materials contribute to the company’s overall mission and values?

Our protein development for AMSilk fits perfectly into our focus on the environmental protection and sustainability: we have developed recombinant proteins according to AMSilk’s requirements that have the desired properties to replace other materials. Fibers based on these structural proteins are completely biodegradable, can be fully recycled and contain no traces of microplastics. In other words, a good starting point for producing environmentally friendly textile products.

As the demand for innovative and sustainable textiles grows, what role do you see for collaborations between academia, industry, and government in accelerating the development and commercialisation of protein-based fibres? What challenges and opportunities do such partnerships present?

We compete with products from the mass market. Therefore, capital expenditure and scaling are always a real challenge. We would welcome more support in financing demonstration plants, similar to the assistance provided in the US through the Inflation Reduction Act. In our view, such public-private partnerships are extremely helpful and, if they are not available, we face a clear locational disadvantage.
One challenge here is that when investing in technology, private funds are often mixed with state funds and the expectations of private investors regarding returns are often different to those of the state. This can harbour potential for conflict if it is not communicated openly from the outset. However, it is often attractive for private investors to have the state as a co-investor in order to cushion part of the investment risk.

Sustainability is a significant concern in the textile industry. How can biotechnology contribute to greater sustainability in this industry?

Biotechnology will play an important role in the textile industry in the future. This is not just about protein fibres. We have the classic detergent enzymes that are used in detergents and interact with textiles. Then, there are developments and studies on the functionalisation of textile surfaces using proteins to give textiles new properties – in a sustainable and biological way. Finally, there are developments in the field of enzymatic textile recycling to obtain virgin grade raw materials on the way to a circular economy.
Interviewer: Shilpi Panjabi
Published on: 10/04/2024

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this column are solely of the interviewee, and they do not reflect in any way the opinion of Fibre2Fashion.com.